President Joe Biden stated that the United States killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a “precision” operation in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, giving the militant group its worst blow since the death of its founder Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon with a $25 million reward on his head, assisted in planning the attacks on September 11, 2001, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.
Under the condition of anonymity, U.S. sources said that Zawahiri was assassinated after he left his safe home in Kabul on Sunday morning and was struck by “hellfire” missiles from an American drone.
“Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said in remarks from the White House on Monday. “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”
He said he had authorised the precision strike in downtown Kabul and that no civilians were killed.
Three spokespeople in the Taliban administration in Kabul declined comment on Zawahiri’s death.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid had previously confirmed that a strike took place in Kabul on Sunday and strongly condemned it, calling it a violation of “international principles.”
A spokesperson for the interior ministry said a house was hit by a rocket in Sherpoor, an upscale residential neighbourhood of the city which also houses several embassies.
“There were no casualties as the house was empty,” Abdul Nafi Takor, the spokesperson, said.
Taliban authorities threw a security dragnet around the house in Sherpoor on Tuesday and journalists were not allowed nearby.
A senior Taliban official told Reuters that Zawahiri was previously in Helmand province and had moved to Kabul after the Taliban took over the country in August last year.
U.S. intelligence determined with “high confidence” through multiple intelligence streams that the man killed was Zawahiri, one senior administration official told reporters.
“Zawahiri continued to pose an active threat to U.S. persons, interests and national security,” the official said on a conference call. “His death deals a significant blow to al Qaeda and will degrade the group’s ability to operate.”
Zawahiri succeeded bin Laden as al Qaeda leader after years as its main organizer and strategist, but his lack of charisma and competition from rival militants Islamic State hobbled his ability to inspire devastating attacks on the West.
There were rumours of Zawahiri’s death several times in recent years, and he was long reported to have been in poor health.
The drone attack is the first known U.S. strike inside Afghanistan since U.S. troops and diplomats left the country in August 2021. The move may bolster the credibility of Washington’s assurances that the United States can still address threats from Afghanistan without a military presence in the country.
His death also raises questions about whether Zawahiri received sanctuary from the Taliban following their takeover of Kabul in August 2021. The official said senior Taliban officials were aware of his presence in the city and said the United States expected the Taliban to abide by an agreement not to allow al Qaeda fighters to re-establish themselves in the country.
“The Taliban will have to answer for al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, after assuring the world they would not give safe haven to al-Qaeda terrorists,” Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban had “grossly violated” the Doha Agreement between the two sides by hosting and sheltering Zawahiri.
Former President Barack Obama joined lawmakers in praising the operation.
“Tonight’s news is also proof that it’s possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan,” Obama said in a Twitter message. “And I hope it provides a small measure of peace to the 9/11 families and everyone else who has suffered at the hands of al Qaeda.”
Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio said: “The world is safer without him in it and this strike demonstrates our ongoing commitment to hunt down all terrorists responsible for 9/11 and those who continue to pose a threat to U.S. interests.” said
Until the U.S. announcement, Zawahiri had been rumoured variously to be in Pakistan’s tribal area or inside Afghanistan.
A video released in April in which he praised an Indian Muslim woman for defying a ban on wearing an Islamic head scarf dispelled rumours that he had died.
The senior U.S. official said finding Zawahiri was the result of persistent counter-terrorism work. The United States found out this year that Zawahiri’s wife, daughter and her children had relocated to a safe house in Kabul, then identified that Zawahiri was there as well, the official said.
“Once Zawahiri arrived at the location, we are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house,” the official said. He was identified multiple times on the balcony, where he was ultimately struck. He continued to produce videos from the house and some may be released after his death, the official said.
In the last few weeks, Biden convened officials to scrutinize the intelligence. He was updated throughout May and June and was briefed on July 1 on a proposed operation by intelligence leaders. On July 25 he received an updated report and authorized the strike once an opportunity was available, the administration official said.
According to the website Rewards for Justice, Zawahiri and other senior al Qaeda members are said to have planned the attack on the USS Cole naval vessel in Yemen on October 12, 2000, which left 17 American sailors dead and more than 30 more injured.
He was indicted in the US for his involvement in the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998, which resulted in 224 fatalities and over 5,000 injuries.
Following the September 11 attacks on the United States, U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001, but neither bin Laden nor Zawahiri were apprehended.